capsule review: encounters at the end of the world

No full film review this week, I'm afraid, but next week will bring a timely review of Watchmen. In the meantime, here's a brief look at one of the best documentary Oscar nominees.

Werner Herzog is a legendary name in filmmaking, and his sub-zero documentary Encounters at the End of the World certainly possesses the veneer of effortlessness associated with masters of the art. From the diving footage from his friend and collaborator Henry Kaiser – glimpses of an watery underworld defined by beauty and oddity in varying measure – to the sparkling desolation of the Antarctic snow and ice, we share in Herzog’s wonder as sets out to discover that most remote of continents for himself.

While a documentary in the general sense of the word – Herzog begins in the mining-town circus of McMurdo Station and branches out to many on-going research endeavours like neutrino experiments, volcanic research, and biological/zoological projects, the film is also the vehicle for Herzog’s personal and rather apocalyptic musings. The film’s title could serve as a metaphor for the fragility of human life and the arguably inevitable extinction we face, especially in the face of global climate change and other self-inflicted catastrophes, just as works first and foremost as a literal description of Herzog’s encounter with the people who live in work at, literally, the end of the world. But other than suggesting that Herzog may not be much fun at parties, the juxtaposition of beauty and wonder with a resigned melancholy does have the character of a tone poem, even if the whole enterprise loses focus until it doesn’t so much end as stop.

Emblematic of the film is the mystery of the deranged penguin, the animal who, instead of going to sea to fish or returning to the colony, chooses instead to head towards the mountains. With humans forbidden from interfering, these penguins head off into 5000 miles of artic expanse – and certain death. No one knows why. Perhaps this is humanity’s epitaph. Perhaps also there is hope in the dreams of those misfits who risk their lives for science or for that intangible, all too human longing.


can we say goodbye to Republibots yet?

President Obama gave a speech last night, as you undoubtedly know, and in tone it achieved a much-needed balance of hopefulness and realism in laying out his agenda, even if it focused more on vision than detail. His heart and head seem to be in the right place – the real test is how his policies on energy, healthcare reform, and economic reform will actually come to pass. The bottom line is he same it’s always been: Obama talks a great game, but it remains to be seen how well he plays it. One really good thing, though: mentioning that with his budget, he’ll actually include the cost for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal delivered the GOP response, and it was every bit the pre-programmed Republibot pabulum you could expect. From a man who can’t understand the life-saving value of volcano monitoring, nor the importance of transportation infrastructure in creating jobs, boosting the economy, and easing mobility, he epitomized what is wrong with the GOP. And there are two points in particular in which Republican’s intellectual dishonesty is in full force:
As we take these steps, we must remember for all our troubles at home, dangerous enemies still seek our destruction. Now is no time to dismantle the defenses that have protected this country for hundreds of years, or make deep cuts in funding for our troops. America's fighting men and women can do anything. If we give them the resources they need, they will stay on the offensive, defeat our enemies, and protect us from harm.
Dismantle our defences? Make deep cuts in funding? This is classic GOP sleight-of-mind, in that any cut to defense is portrayed as weakening National Security. Yet with reports of massive Pentagon overspending, fiscal responsibility demands that military spending, like any other, be made leaner and more efficient. As it stands, this assumption that all military spending is good spending, and that cuts are always to be avoided, only encourages the war profiteers to game the system to their benefit. Calling for responsible spending is not to call for depriving the military of vital resources. In face, a trimmer budget means that the military will need to develop meaningful priorities and fund workable systems instead of getting distracted by this or that shiny new and deadly toy.

The second point is healthcare, and Jindal summarizes the GOP’s:
We stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage. What we oppose is universal government-run health care. Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients, not by government bureaucrats. We believe Americans can do anything, and if we put aside partisan politics and work together, we can make our system of private medicine affordable and accessible for every one of our citizens.
Unfortunately, the healthcare system hasn’t worked, the GOP has not put forth any meaningful plan to make health care coverage affordable, and all Jindal has done is reinforce the GOP’s pious devotion to private, for-profit medicine. HMOs win.

As nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stieglitz told Democracy Now!, "I think that there are some fundamental problems in the efficiency of our healthcare system. And what we’ve seen is that the private healthcare insurers do not know how to deliver an efficient way."

There’s no particularly enlightening moral or insight this week, except that as much as the Democrats aren’t the shiniest of the shiny, the GOP really need to go away.


TFPO column: abolish pet ownership. replace it with...

One of the challenges in going vegetarian or vegan is going beyond nutrition to other elements of living, like clothing, or household items, or any number of thingsthat, counter-intuitively involve animal products. For example, did you know that animal products are often used in the wine-making process? Gelatin (made from the collagen found in animal skin and bones), egg albumen, chitosan (made from chitin, the structural element of crustacean shells), and others are used as finings - agents that help remove organic compounds such as protein and yeasts to improve a wine's clarity, flavour, and aroma. Although these finings may not end up in the wine bottle you buy at the store, the use of animal products has prompted the manufacture of vegan wines.

But this week's topic at TFPO is a bit broader in scope, namely, the notion of pet ownership. It came about from a discussion on Ron Reagan's show on Air America as to whether or not people should be allowed to own wild animals like chimpanzees.

Abolish Pet Ownership. Replace It With...


film review: revolutionary road

Michael Shannon was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category. Thus, I give you...

Revolutionary Road: A Heartbreaking Requiem for a Marriage


theatre review: the trial of the catonsville nine

Sorry for the unceremonious link tossing, but it's been a hectic week. Here's a review of a play currently on stage at the Ivy Substation:

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine


TFPO column: frederik's guide to giving good stimulus (part 2)

Without fanfare, here's part 2 of the column I started last week:

Frédérik's Guide to Giving Good Stimulus (Part 2)


new film reviews: the international, coraline, vicky cristina barcelona

Three reviews this week. First up is The International. The consensus at Rotten Tomatoes the film "boasts some electric action sequences and picturesque locales, but is undone by its preposterous plot." But it's worth keeping in mind that the film is a piece of entertainment, not a work of investigative journalism, and the film's villainous bank does have a real-life parallel. Exaggerated? Sure. Preposterous? That's a little much.

The International: Bank On It

Also, Coraline. The animation is gorgeous and the style eventually creates an identity separate from that of The Nightmare Before Christmas. But, unfortunately, the film doesn't live up to the classic.

Coraline: Visually Sumptious, but Cora-lite on Story.

Finally, Penelope Cruz got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Not really justified, in my view, but that's the wisdom of the Academy for you. Find a review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona at inkandashes.net.


republibots on the rampage!

Economies are defined by spending, which is why tax cuts by themselves don't, well, cut it when it comes to jumpstarting a sluggish (and then some) economy. This isn't only a sensible conclusion based on even a basic knowledge of economics; this is the opinion of some pretty big brains. To wit, the latest from the Congressional Research Service. I haven't read the whole report yet, but here's a good bit from the summary:
Fiscal policy temporarily stimulates the economy through an increase in spending which also, if not offset by increases in revenue, increases the budget deficit. There is a consensus that certain proposals, ones that result in more spending, can be implemented quickly, and leave no long-term effect on the budget deficit, would increase the benefits and reduce the costs of fiscal stimulus relative to other proposals. Economists generally agree that spending proposals are somewhat more stimulative than tax cuts since part of a tax cut may be saved by the recipients.
And here's another:
If the goal of stimulus is to maximize the boost to total spending while minimizing the increase in the budget deficit (in order to minimize the deleterious effects of “crowding out”), then maximum bang for the buck would be desirable. The primary way to achieve the most bang for the buck is by choosing policies that result in spending, not saving. Direct government spending on goods and services would therefore lead to the most bang for the buck since none of it would be saved. The largest categories of direct federal spending are national defense, health, infrastructure, public order and safety, and natural resources.
Johnathan Stein, who posted about this at the Mother Jones blog, quite rightly wonders what's going on with Republicans, but I suspect that the answer is more obvious than we think. Reagan switched places with a clone, who grew old and eventually died, while the Real Gipper hid in his underground lair and created an army of Republibots who would infiltrate Washington and spread his ideology according to their narrow programming. So Republibots, of course, don't need to do homework or think; they just need to follow their programming, which is to resist Democrats at any cost and solve any and all problems with one solution: tax cuts. Recession? Tax cuts. Election campaign? Tax cuts. Diaper in need of changing? Tax cuts.


TFPO column: frédérik's guide to giving good stimulus (part 1)

Do we need any more proof of the GOP's fetish for sabotage than their glee at stifling the stimulus plan and using the whole fiasco as an opportunity to score political points? But never mind the bollocks - that's politics as usual, and Republicans have a shiny new pair of blinders on to hide that shiner Obama and the Dems gave them in November. Of course, none of that alleviates concerns about the economy. So, in these troubled times, I've distilled all the blah-blah la-z-boy economics on the intertubes to give you...

Frédérik's Guide to Giving Good Stimulus (Part 1)


new film review: inkheart

I've just started reading Inkheart, and immediately a key difference between the novel and the movie leaps out to explain why the movie doesn't quite succeed as well as it should: mystery. Funke structured her novel as a suspense/mystery story, in which the protagonist (12-year-old Meggie) has to noodle her way through strange and increasingly menacing occurrences. The movie, however, begins with revelations galore, stripping out any sense of awe and mystery and leaving behind the structure of a garden-variety adventure movie where heroes face off against villains, race against time before Something Truly Awful happens, and we are left feeling as if we've seen all this before.

Review at The Front Page Online:

Inkheart: Plenty of Ink, Not Enough Heart

and also at inkandashes.net.


capsule film review: the visitor

Thomas McCarthy, actor an now screenwriter/director, is one to watch. While I’ve not seen The Station Agent, his debut feature, his sophomore effort The Visitor is the kind of indie film that quietly sneaks up on the bigger Hollywood fare to deliver a dramatic wallop. It’s good to see the film get some recognition in the form of Richard Jenkins’ Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor, although I think a screenwriting nod would have been appreciate. McCarthy takes a familiar conceit – a lifeless, listless man finding a new spark for life – but does two things that make it authentic.

First, he avoids theatrics and sentimentality, trusting instead in the deceptively simple story. Without taking it to the full monty, The Visitor involves friendship, romance. and gentle, non-judgmental social commentary in what is best described as a richly layered character piece. Second, he knows enough not to overwrite his scenes, leaving room for the actors to perform beyond the dialogue. I’m thinking of Richard Jenkins sitting at the piano under the watchful eye of a skeptical teacher, half-heartedly tapping the keys in a ritual invocation of memory, then coming alive as he learns to drum the djembe under the tutelage of Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian immigrant whose illegal status will come to cause problems. McCarthy doesn’t have to tell us that Vale is coming back to life; he lets Jenkins show it to us. I’m also thinking of Danai Gurira as Tarek’s girlfriend Zainab, a Senegalese woman who is also in the US illegally, begins as frosty, haughty woman, but gradually warms up. The whole ensemble, really, is beautiful, and McCarthy’s unobtrusive direction yields a handsome film.

The Visitor is a writer’s movie, but also an actor’s movie, which ultimately makes it the viewer’s movie.


do you throw your shoe at us, sir?

An adaptation of a fragment from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Scene 1, in honour of the monument dedicated to the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at then-President Bush. The monument was taken down not long after it was put up, but at least we’ll always have the pictures.

Gregory: I will frown as I pass by, and let them take it as they list.
Nay, as they dare. I will throw my shoe at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.

Do you throw your shoe at us, sir?

Sampson: I do throw my shoe, sir.
Do you throw your shoe at us, sir?

Sampson (to Gregory):
Is the law of our side if I say ay?


No, sir, I do not throw my shoe at you sir; but I lob my shoe, sir.

Do you cobble, sir?

Cobble, sir? No, sir.

Sampson: If you do, sir, I am for you: I stitch as good a man as you.
No better.

Well, sir.

Gregory (to Sampson)
: Say 'better'; here comes one of my master's kinsmen.

Sampson: Yes, better, sir.
You lie.

Awl, if you be men! Gregory, remember thy skiving blow.

(They make shoes.)


new column: we're human, not rabbits or fruit flies

It's interesting to note the increasing and entirely justifiable outrage surrounding the woman with the octuplets, despite the fact that she's apparently being approached with book and movie deals (wtf?). But all that's just the tip of the iceberg in this week's TFPO column, because, dagnabbit...

We're Humans, Not Rabbits or Fruit Flies